The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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The role of a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead is ultimately to breed, and nothing more. Cooped up in a nondescript room with nothing but her own thoughts and painful memories for company, the narrator, Offred, shows many signs of retreating further and further into her own world, and becoming slowly more unstable throughout the course of the novel as her terrible new life continues.

The most common and by far the most disturbing example of this is the use of imagery and symbolism in the book. Many everyday items and observations are likened to some kind of sickening or violent image, which indicate that Offred isn’t really all that stable; for example a removed light fixture is described as being “like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out.”

Other examples of this are describing a Guardian of the Faith’s face as “unwholesomely tender, like the skin under a scab” and likening “half-dead, flexible and pink” worms to lips. A tourist’s stiletto heels are “delicate instruments of torture”; fluffy clouds are thought of as “headless sheep” and urinals “look oddly like babies’ coffins”. The Commander’s Wife herself is described as having a chin “clenched like a fist”. Further on in the book, when Moira has been violently punished for faking an illness;

“... she could not walk for a week... They looked like drowned feet, swollen and boneless, except for the colour. They looked like lungs.”

All these violent, disgusting images are evidence for Offred’s deteriorating state of health. Other similes mentioned are not so much violent as they are strange; at one stage, Offred compares herself to a piece of toast.

The author also uses colour as a powerful symbolic device. The colour red is referred to many times in the novel, most notably when Offred describes herself as “a Sister, dipped in blood.” This image in particular refers to menstruation, a process the Handmaids have grown to dread as it proves they have ‘failed’ once again.

The reoccurring image of the tulips in the garden also relates to this – they are also red and compared to blood:

“... a darker crimson toward the stem, as if they had been cut and are beginning to heal there.”

and all of the references can be likened to “Tulips”, a poem by Sylvia Plath, written about her time in a mental illness ward.

We are informed, primarily in Chapter Two, that any object that may aid suicide is strictly out of bounds in Offred’s accommodation.

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The pictures have no glass; the window only opens partly; there are no light fixtures or hooks, or “anything you could tie a rope to”. Later on in the novel, Offred greatly covets the Marthas (“I wish I had a knife like that”) and the fact that the Commander’s Wife is allowed to knit. Her ecstatic happiness in finding the word ‘FAITH’ printed on a cushion;

“I can spend minutes, tens of minutes, running my eyes over the print”

and finding a scratched inscription on the inside of the wardrobe is also evidence that being trapped in a world where there is absolutely no way out is slowly driving Offred to madness and despair. When she is bored, she speaks of “caged rats who’d give themselves electric shocks for something to do”,

“pig balls, for pigs who were being fattened in pens... I wish I had a pig ball”


“... pigeons, trained to peck a button which made a grain of corn appear... They’d peck themselves to death, rather than quit.”

The very fact that Offred is likening herself to tortured animals makes the reader realise the full impact of her situation, and how she cannot remain mentally stable for much longer. The pig ball reference is also an example of Offred’s thought-switching processes.

The first sign of the social breakup in what used to be Massachusetts is indicated by one of Offred’s more terrifying memories – her daughter was abducted by an infertile woman. Offred says at the time she felt sorry for the woman, and;

“[Offred] thought it was an isolated incident, at the time.”

Offred misses her daughter greatly, and these memories she harbours eat away at her thoughts, slowly deteriorating her mental state.

There are also many examples of Offred hearkening back to her childhood; hanging bodies with white bags over their head remind her of the ‘heads of snowmen, with the coal eyes and the carrot noses fallen out. The heads are melting.’ A rather more sickening image is spoken of later, when blood has soaked through the bag:

“This smile of blood is what fixes the attention, finally. These are not snowmen after all.”

Little things such as not stepping on the cracks in the pavement (that symbolise the cracks in society), and the fact that all printed words have been removed:

“You can see the place... where the lettering was painted out, when they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us.”

and Offred’s own personal way of relieving her boredom;

“I stand on the corner, pretending I am a tree”.

are all evidence for this theme of remembrance of her childhood; a free enjoyable time. When she first meets the Commander’s Wife, Offred likens herself to a doll that will talk when a string is pulled. In her head Offred recalls being at a feminist protest when she was a child – in the young girl’s innocent mind, an image of sado-masochistic pornography is ‘like Tarzan’, swinging ‘from a vine, on TV.’ Although the whole of society has become vehemently anti-feminist, pornography is still banned. Any form of sexual release that will not result in childbirth is forbidden.

This reminiscing and suddenly snapping to different trains of thought is another obvious example of her declining mental state; playing mind games with herself and elaborating on the double meaning of some words:

“But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story to yourself. There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no one.”

“It isn’t running away they’re afraid of... It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.”

“The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death us do part.
The hold of a ship. Hollow.”

This thought-switching happens often throughout the novel, generally when she is thinking about her daughter, or her husband. The image of her daughter being taken by a strange woman haunts Offred greatly; being able to swop to a mundane train of thought whilst close to hysterical tears must indicate some form of mental imbalance.

As well as this, the many reminisces of childhood symbolise Offred’s helplessness being like that of a child; her thoughts and actions are governed solely by other people and she is constantly patronised and degraded.

As the time of the Ceremony draws closer, the Handmaids become more unnerved. Looking around the room, Offred feels she ‘...would like to steal something from this room... Every once in a while I would take it out and look at it. It would make me feel that I have power.’ These are not the thoughts of an entirely sane woman – the lifestyle of Gilead continues to make an impression on Offred. She is determined to avoid the brainwashing, and find a way out of Gilead. But the daily rituals begin to have a detrimental effect and Offred stops thinking rationally. Eventually, her feverish optimism is the cause of her own demise.

“And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.”
“Tulips”, Sylvia Plath
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